Is There a “Right” Way to Wage War?

As the CIA faces criticism over its interrogation techniques used on captured terrorists, we should ponder the question: Can war and violence be justified?

Recent news headlines have focused on the findings of a congressional study detailing the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) sometimes cruel and brutal practices in the pursuit of information about terrorists. The “enhanced interrogation” methods detailed in the report have led to harsh criticisms of the agency for what appear to be serious human rights violations and torture.

While many have condemned such means, some have defended them. Dick Cheney, who was vice president during the time these practices began, has repeatedly lashed out at criticism and denied that what the CIA did was illegal: “Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. … There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.”

The torture controversy has sparked confusion among many Americans who are trying to square U.S. ideals of freedom and justice with the actions some have committed to protect those freedoms.

It begs the question: Is there a “right” way to wage war?

God provides the answer in the Bible; but without humble acknowledgement of His infinite wisdom regarding human relationships and the purpose of human life, the debate over the morality of war will continue.

In fact, this is by no means the first time the U.S. has faced such an issue.

Ultimately, there is no “right” way for human beings to wage war with each other. It is an inherently sinful enterprise that taps into the deception that man can solve his own problems by killing others.Motivated forgetting

More than a hundred years ago, having defeated Spain in Cuba, the U.S. military found itself fighting a guerrilla war in the Philippines. News quickly spread of violent torture methods and brutal killings committed by American soldiers in the pursuit of suspected Filipino guerrillas.  

President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in 1902 during the height of criticism, echoing the sentiments of Cheney today: “Remember always that by far the greater proportion of these cruelties have been committed by the insurgents against their own people as well as against our soldiers, and that not only the surest but the only effectual way of stopping them is by the progress of the American arms” (Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt).

Why this pointing of fingers? Why do people defend such ugly acts of violence for the sake of war?

It turns out that human psychology is somewhat wired this way. Research has shown that when confronted with potentially embarrassing guilt attributed to one’s group (as opposed to someone else’s), people in that group tend to more easily dismiss the information and even forget it.

Psychologists call this “motivated forgetting” and believe that it may explain why people can so easily forget or dismiss past atrocities or controversies in their group’s (or nation’s) history (“Motivated to ‘Forget’”).

It seems that human nature results in our forgetting the lessons of our past and makes us hard-hearted regarding present issues. But the human mind, as we will see, begins justifying warfare long before it becomes history.

No “right” way

Human warfare draws on the basest of human nature’s inherent weaknesses: “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?

“You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:1-3, Revised Standard Version).

Warfare, regardless of the nations involved, prompts a cocktail of sinful practices:

There are obviously different levels of violence and depravity, and some nations do try to set rules to limit the worst “war crimes.” But ultimately, there is no “right” way for human beings to wage war with each other. It is an inherently sinful enterprise that taps into the deception that man can solve his own problems by killing others. This totally leaves God out of the picture.

In today’s dangerous world, nations see no pragmatic physical way to avoid war. Without a strong military, nations are at the mercy of others. No nation in history, including ancient Israel, has fully accepted the only real solution—the spiritual solution of trusting in God for protection. A world without God will continue to embrace war with its downward spiral of viciousness.

But with God, we can rest assured that a day will come when, under His righteous government, all people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” and no longer learn the ways of war (Micah 4:3).

We don’t have to wait until then to change our attitudes about war and human conflict. God’s commandments of love enable us to live His way of peace now.

To learn more about the biblical perspective on war and killing, read the following resources:

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